Local farmers have adapted their practices so that they can provide many fresh vegetables, such as these carrots from White Gate Farm in Tamworth, even during the cold weather. (Courtesy photo)
For many, outdoor farmers' markets are a treasured part of the spring, summer and fall. The growth in the markets has been driven by shoppers who value food that is grown locally, by people they can come to know, and with practices they can feel good about. Then winter comes, and even the hardiest of yankee farmers don't want to set up a table in a parking lot all day. But they don't go into hibernation – instead, the markets that have provided a robust network connecting shoppers with local growers, food producers and crafters have simply moved indoors. November is the month that the winter farmers' market season begins. Market managers seem to find plenty of shoppers and vendors eager to join the action.
The state saw a surge of winter farmers' markets about five years ago, said Gail McWilliam-Jellie, director of agricultural development at the N.H. Department of Agriculture. While a few of those new markets have since ceased, many have found solid footing, and she expects New Hampshire to have nearly 30 winter farmers' markets this season.
"There are some core markets that have been very popular, drawn great crowds," said McWilliam-Jellie. "The number of farmers markets are holding fairly constant in the last couple of years."
She sees the rise of winter markets as driven by the same factors that draw shoppers to warm-weather markets, yet aided by recent efforts, specifically by the UNH Cooperative Extension, to encourage and educate farmers about which crops can either be harvested in the fall and stored for winter sale, or which can be grown in greenhouses year-round, even in the Northern New England climate. Farmers' markets, whether they're inside or out, have also benefited from state programs that allow shoppers using assistance programs to double their dollars at farmers' markets. Most markets participate in a grant-funded initiative that allows SNAP users to double their buying power.
Kathey Wotton, of Wotton Farm in Wolfeboro, was busily processing chickens on Wednesday to bring to the Wolfeboro Winter Market, held on the first and third Saturday of each month at the First Congregational Church. This will be the second season of the Wolfeboro winter market, which, like many others, started as an outdoor market.
"The customers wanted us to market all year long," said Wotton. She expects to have about 20 vendors at each market, with a range of products that include vegetables, meats, cheeses, prepared foods and crafts. She said the market is still growing and looking for vendors to add to the diversity of offerings.
"If somebody's got something that we don't have, we'd love to have them," said Wotton.
That diversity of offerings is critical to a market's success, said McWilliam-Jellie. In general, she said that a market needs two things to survive: a good location and a broad range of items for sale.
"It depends on the location of the location of the market, if its convenient, and if there's enough there to make it interesting for them to come there and spend their money," she said.
Peg Loughran, who co-organizes, along with Bob Streeter, the Tamworth Farmers' Market, is also preparing for an indoor market on Saturday. The Tamworth market, small but diverse, has been operating year-round for eight years, and splits its schedule between the local elementary school and Town House. The markets have steadily increased in volume over the years, and the winter markets are seeing about 200 to 300 shoppers each week.
The growth of the Tamworth market, in Loughran's view, is due to its consistency, which allows shoppers to make the market a part of their weekly routine, and because of the range of offerings available.
"What I regularly hear is, 'Oh my goodness, I didn't realize how many vendors would be here!'"
Scott Hodsdon is barely into his first season of managing the winter farmers' market in Gilford, which is held each Saturday at the Gilford Community Center. That market, a continuation of the new and successful summer market, is off to a good start, he said. "It's gaining popularity each week." Hodsdon noted that farmers' markets aren't only about buying and selling. They also feature a lot of social interaction.
"One of the things that we love about our farmers' market is that it's a nice community event," Hodsdon said, adding that shoppers tend to linger after they've selected their purchases so that they can catch up with neighbors and friends.
But, said Loughran, the food remains the star of the show, and is why farmers' markets have become a year-round affair.
"If you're looking for food grown locally, there's just no shortage," she said. In Tamworth, as in other markets, there are the usual vegetables, meats and baked goods, as well as clothing, syrup, mushrooms and dairy products. "What else could you need? We even have cotton candy and beef jerky, you can pretty much walk out of here with anything."
Winter farmers’ markets offer food as well as crafts, such as pottery, jewelry and textiles. (Courtesy photo)